Wed, Sep 06, 2017 - Page 13 News List

Made in Khmerica

US-raised Khmer deportees struggle to start over after being left high and dry in foreign homeland

By Sally Mairs  /  AFP, Battambang, Cambodia

Cambodian deportee Leach Chhoeun drinks beer as he joins other deportees for a meal in Battambang province, Cambodia, last month. The province has become a hub for returnees from the US.

PHOTO: AFP

Guzzling beer and pizza as hip-hop blasts from a stack of speakers, Kookie’s thoughts drift back to the US, a country that took him in as a child refugee from Cambodia but deported him to the kingdom years later for a criminal record.

Returning to the US is just a dream for the heavily tattooed Kookie and his fellow exiles, who are among hundreds of Cambodian refugees banished after serving time for gang shootouts and other crimes committed as youths in tough inner cities of the US.

“We don’t remember shit [about Cambodia], really our minds are Americanized,” said 41-year-old Kookie, one of seven so-called “Khmericans” shooting the breeze around a table in Cambodia’s rural Battambang province.

“I’m here just in my body. My heart is over there,” Vuthy Ing chimed in, eliciting nods of agreement from a group whose US street slang, elaborate ink work and US-bred bulk sets them apart in their new home.

In between profanity-laced banter, the men sketch out emotionally raw stories of dislocation that span Thai refugee camps, gang violence in the US, prison and deportation back to one of Asia’s poorest countries. They are now back in the same rice fields their parents fled to escape Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s.

But it is not a happy homecoming for the returnees.

They have been severed from their families and cast into the cultural wilderness of a country that views them as outsiders.

“It’s hard to adjust because [locals] look at us as different...they say us is like a reject: ‘you got a chance to go to America, why you get deported?’” said Kookie, a charismatic Californian whose full name is Leach Chhoeun. Cambodia has taken in 566 deportees since inking a 2002 pact with the US that opened the trap door on thousands of legal residents who had blots on their criminal records.

Authorities now want to revise a deal seen as a form of “double punishment” for deportees, many of whom were booted out years after finishing their prison sentences. But unpicking the agreement is unlikely with US President Donald Trump talking tough on immigration and immigrants with criminal pasts. 28 Cambodian deportees have arrived since the start of the year, with some 2,000 others currently on the deportation list.

“Now that Trump is in The House, nothing is gonna change,” said Kookie, pouring another round of beer.

FLEEING THE KILLING FIELDS

The Khmericans were newborns and toddlers when their families fled through mine-strewn jungle to escape the Khmer Rouge, which killed or starved to death nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population.

After years of languishing in Thai refugee camps, more than 100,000 Cambodians were granted asylum in the US.

America’s embrace of the refugees was in part an act of atonement for carpet bombing Cambodia during the Vietnam War, destruction that helped set the stage for the Khmer Rouge’s rise. But life in the US was no fairytale for the traumatized refugees shunted into its crime-ridden cities. As teenagers, many were swept into the gang wars barreling through their poor urban communities in southern California, Massachusetts and Washington State through the 1980s and 90s.

Banding together became a means of survival in a world where gangs were cut along ethnic lines and anti-Asian sentiment festered following the Vietnam War.

“They all picked on us so we had to stick together for protection,” said Kookie, a former member of the mainly Cambodian street gang the Asian Boyz.

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